Actors and actresses pass on movie roles all the time. It’s part of the Hollywood machine. There are scheduling conflicts and creative differences. They’re turned down for all kinds of reasons. With the news of J.J. Abrams directing Star Wars: Episode VII, I’m reminded of one iconic role in particular. Although this actor has since gone on to have a career almost as iconic as the role he turned down, it’s always fun wondering “what if?”
Al Pacino as Han Solo in Star Wars (1977)
The role that kicked started Harrison Ford‘s career was originally offered to Al Pacino. Admittedly, Ford was never George Lucas‘ first choice, because he didn’t want to work with someone he’d previously worked with (prior to Star Wars, Lucas and Ford worked on American Graffiti). Aside from Pacino, Lucas even considered Jack Nicholson, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray before settling on Ford. About why he turned down the role, Pacino said the role of Han Solo was his for the taking, “but I didn’t take it because I didn’t understand the script.” What the hell was so confusing about Star Wars?
Tom Sellick as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Harrison Ford was always Steven Spielberg‘s first choice to play Indy. But George Lucas, having already worked with Ford on American Graffiti and Star Wars, objected. While Tom Sellick was Lucas’ first choice, and Spielberg’s second, Sellick — thankfully — had to decline due to heavy scheduling conflicts with Magnum P.I. I mean, Indiana Jones is only one of the most iconic roles ever, and Magnum P.I….well, I’m having trouble remembering. Except that he drove a Ferrari. Good choice, Tom. In fact, filming of Raiders of the Lost Ark had already wrapped before Magnum P.I. had even begun production that season.
Richard Gere as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (1987)
Gordon Gekko was the role the redefined Michael Douglas‘ career, allowing him to step out of his father’s shadows. He won Best Actor for his portrayal of the Wall Street tycoon, captivating the 1980′s crowd by telling them, “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” However, director Oliver Stone originally offered the role of Gekko to Richard Gere, who could’ve used the role to his advantage, showing huge range from one film to the other. He would’ve totally transformed from his callow role in An Officer And A Gentlemen to the amoral businessman of Wall Street. But Gere turned down the role because he simply wasn’t at all interested in the story.
Michelle Pfeiffer as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Silence of the Lambs is a brilliant movie. Jodie Forster‘s performance as Clarice Starling undoubtedly revived her career. However, at the time, Michelle Pfeiffer was one of the hottest actresses in Hollywood and considered more “bankable” and was originally attached to the project. She eventually dropped out because of the violence and graphic nature of the script. The material was simply too dark and disturbing for her. Poor Michelle. The Silence of the Lambs went on to win the so-called “big five” Academy Awards, taking home Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. The only other two films to do that were It Happened One Night, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Director Jonathan Demme auditioned nearly every top actress in Hollywood before finally offering the role to Jodie Foster.
John Travolta as Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump (1994)
One I’m very…VERY thankful for is when John Travolta turned down the role of Forrest Gump. I’m sure I don’t have to explain why. Tom Hanks‘ portrayal of the simple-minded Forrest who ran across the country and delivered one cinema’s most well-know lines — it’s a classic! Had Travolta attempted to do it, it probably wouldn’t be. Travolta later admitted that passing of Forrest Gump was “a mistake.” Obviously he thinks so, but I consider it a blessing in disguise. Hanks went on to win his second straight Best Actor Oscar. His first was for his role in Philadelphia.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights (1997)
Paul Thomas Anderson initially sought out Leo for the lead role of porn star Dirk Diggler in his 1997 seminal film. Later, Leo commented on his decision. “My biggest regret is Boogie Nights. I’m a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson but the first time I met him for that role I hadn’t really seen much of his previous work. Now I love that movie.” Leo loved PTA’s screenplay, but decided to take on the role of Jack in Titanic. Not such a horrible decision for his career. It was Leo who suggested Mark Wahlberg for the role.
Will Smith as Neo in The Matrix (1999)
Before Keanu Reeves helped make Neo such an iconic figure in cinema, the Wackowsi siblings originally offered the role to Will Smith. Which honestly is a smart choice. Smith has huge box-office potential, and one of the most sought after actors in the biz. Admittedly, though, Smith is okay with his choice to decline. “You know, The Matrix is a difficult concept to pitch. In the pitch, I just didn’t see it. I watched Keanu’s performance — and very rarely do I say this but I would have messed it up. At that point I wasn’t smart enough as an actor to let the movie be. Whereas Keanu was smart enough to just let it be.” Smith went on to make Wild Wild West.
Mel Gibson as Maximus in Gladiator ( 2000)
Although Russell Crowe went on to win Best Actor for his portrayal of the Roman General turned tortured gladiator in Ridley Scott‘s epic tale, another Australian — Mel Gibson — was originally cast as the Spaniard. Gibson won two Oscars in 1995 for his own epic tale Braveheart. However, he was 43 years old at the time Gladiator was ramping up production, and considered himself too old. He turned down the role because he didn’t think he’d be believable in the fight scenes. Crowe, who was 8 years younger, eventually took the role which made him a star.
Sean Connery as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: The Followship of the Ring (2001)
At this point, Sean Connery has had a very long and successful career. He’s bound to have made both good and bad choices. One of them, was turning down the role of Gandalf for Peter Jackson‘s Lord of the Rings trilogy because he didn’t like the proposed 18 month filming schedule. To be honest, that does sound grueling, but that’s not a very good reason. Connery went on to turn down the role of Morpheus in The Matrix as well. Two decisions he’s obviously regretted.
You know what they say — hind-sight is 20/20.
Pacino was also offered both the roles Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen established in Apocalypse Now, as well as Dustin Hoffman’s role as Lenny Bruce in Lenny and Richard Gere’s role in Pretty Woman.